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Issue 16 - A very special Discovery

Scotland Magazine Issue 16
September 2004


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A very special Discovery

The Discovery now resides on the River Tay and is packed with history. David Bowers visited it

Standing on the deck of a three-masted barque berthed on the River Tay in Dundee on a sunny autumnal morning, it was difficult imagining this vessel trapped in a sea of ice over two long Antarctic winters as fierce snow gales eclipsed its dark, alien form against the all encompassing whiteness.

The age of exploration was drawing to a close by 1900, although Antarctica still challenged scientific, meteorological and geographical investigation with national prestige being the underlying theme. This led the Royal Geographical Society into commissioning a ship named Discovery in honour of others that had sailed the perilous southern oceans.

A contract was duly awarded to the Dundee Shipbuilders’ Company; a logical choice as this city’s shipbuilders had a fine reputation for building whalers that could withstand the vicissitudes of Antarctic sailing conditions.

Imagine a maelstrom of green water sweeping over the decks, a howling gale threatening to carry away the sails, and a menacing iceberg on a collision course and you will get the picture.

The keel was laid down on the River Tay on 16th March 1900 and the ship was expediently launched just over 12 months later on 21st March 1901 by Lady Markham, wife of Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographical Society. The design called for a wooden hull that could withstand the pressure of being trapped in ice, and sail was the main form of propulsion, with a 450 hp, triple-expansion steam engine supplied by Gourlay Brothers of Dundee installed for emergency situations.

Within the ship’s compact 172’x33’ beam dimensions, this had to accommodate 50 crew plus all the supplies needed for a voyage of up to three years. Additionally, the ship carried scientific and expedition equipment and the specification called for a laboratory and an elegant wardroom for the ship’s officers and scientists.

The Society’s search for a commander for the 1901 National Antarctic Expedition led to someone whose name would become inextricably and tragically linked with Antarctica some years later when he died in an unsuccessful attempt to reach the South Pole, 33 year old Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

Discovery was fitted out at Dundee’s Victoria Dock and was provisioned in London before setting out for Antarctica on 6th August 1901 with 48 officers, crew and scientists aboard. Further supplies were taken on at Christchurch, New Zealand and she left for Antarctica on Christmas Eve 1901, an occasion that was blighted when a sailor fell to his death from a mast.

After negotiating 300 miles of treacherous pack ice, Antarctica was sighted on 3rd January 1902 and Discovery sailed along the Ross Ice Shelf carrying out a geographical survey before making for McMurdo Sound, as the sea was about to freeze over with temperatures plunging to -60°C.

During the long Antarctic winter, the crew had plenty to do clearing snow from the decks and encrustations of ice from the rigging, and leisure activities included football on the solid ice field that surrounded the ship as if it was also frozen in time, plus less familiar pursuits including skiing and sledging.

After making the first flight over Antarctica in a balloon, in November 1901 Scott prepared for his attempt at reaching the South Pole. Accompanied by Edward Wilson and Ernest Shackleton, Scott came within 530 miles of this objective before they retreated in the face of appalling weather conditions, scurvy and depleted supplies.

Scott made a second exploration of the interior in October 1903 when the party ascended the 9,000’ Ferrar Glacier before the weather closed in
forcing the ship to retreat.

The arrival of a relief ship on 5 January 1904 lifted spirits, although Scott then learnt that the expedition would have to be curtailed, as the Admiralty couldn’t provide further assistance, so it was time to return home. As Discovery was ice-bound 20 miles from open water, it looked as if she’d have to be abandoned. However, spurred on by the unacceptability of leaving her behind and returning on the relief ship, the crew blasted a channel with explosives that allowed Discovery to break free on 16th February. She arrived at Spithead on 10th September 1901 after a 26 month voyage, which firmly established Scott as a national hero.

Discovery’s fortunes waxed and waned over the rest of her working life; she had already been sold to the Hudson Bay Company when Scott set out on his ill-fated 1910-1913 expedition. She was used in Canada as a resupply vessel and carried cargoes of fur to London. Chartered to the French government during the First World War, Discovery headed north through the icy Barent’s Sea delivering war supplies to Archangel in Russia. She was re-equipped for another Antarctic trip in 1916 to rescue Ernest Shackleton’s crew after his ship Endurance was crushed by an ice field and sunk, but this mission was called off when another ship was summonsed which was closer to hand.

June 1919 saw Discovery sailing through warmer waters delivering munitions to White Russian insurgents fighting the Red Army during the Russian Revolution. She then slipped into obscurity until re-commissioned for another Antarctic expedition between 1925 and 1927, followed by the British, Australian and New Zealand Antarctic Research Expedition until 1931; voyages that yielded valuable scientific and geological data.

Discovery’s next role was a training vessel, first with the Sea Scouts and then the Royal Navy during the Second World War. By the Fifties, interest was growing in saving the ship for the nation, a project that was supported by Scott’s son, Peter, the famous naturalist. The Maritime Trust carried out restoration work in London, although the ship’s future remained uncertain, as a permanent berthing was needed. This was most satisfactorily resolved on the night of 3rd April 1986, when Discovery arrived home to the River Tay where she’d been built all those years ago.

Since then, the Dundee Heritage Trust has continued the restoration and Discovery is now the centrepiece of the National Antarctic Museum that’s been established in Dundee. This tells the gripping story of how the white continent gave up its secrets to brave explorers who remained undaunted in the face of such an inhospitable climate.


Dundee Heritage Trust,
Discovery Point, Discovery Quay, Dundee, DD1 4XA
Open every day, except 25th December, 1st and 2nd January, from 10 am Mon to Sat and from 11 am on Sunday. Last admission 5 pm (4 pm Nov to Mar)
Tel: +44 (0)1382 225891